Lost and found on the way to a new re­al­ity

In her mem­oir All Things Con­soled, El­iz­a­beth Hay grap­ples with the de­cline of her par­ents — her mother a late-life artist, her fa­ther an am­bi­tious teacher — and her own shift from ‘dif­fi­cult child’ to care­giver when she and her hus­band Mark move them to O

Regina Leader-Post - - WEEKEND - All Things Con­soled: A Daugh­ter’s Mem­oir El­iz­a­beth Hay Mcclel­land & Stew­art

My par­ents left their beloved home on Jan­uary 24th, 2009. The fren­zied lead-up to their de­par­ture re­minded me of the flight into Egypt, ex­cept that Mary had mis­placed her son and was des­per­ate to find him.

While we filled a few suit­cases to take on the small plane to Ot­tawa, while my brother Stu sched­uled the mov­ing truck and sorted be­long­ings, while my mother’s knee re­mained “nice and quiet,” ac­cord­ing to the sur­geon, thus al­low­ing her to travel — while all this was go­ing on, she searched ob­ses­sively for two things: the slide she’d had made of the small black-and-white snap- shot from 1952 of our brother Al, fish­ing, and the en­large­ment made from the slide.

“Where might they be?” I asked my fa­ther. “Have you seen them?” “In her head,” was his an­swer. On the eve of our de­par­ture, I went out into her stu­dio to make an­other search and paused for a mo­ment to take stock of ev­ery­thing and ap­pre­ci­ate it for the last time: the huge can­vases lean­ing against walls and stacked on shelves; the over­sized easel; the big can­vas-cov­ered, paint-be­spat­tered ta­ble, one end of which was cov­ered with a sheet of glass; the sev­eral stained lab coats, hang­ing from a hook by the small sink, that she wore over her clothes while she worked; the many tubes of paint in mar­garine tubs; the puddles of paint in the hol­lows of muf­fin tins. I took in the enor­mity of the en­ter­prise. My mother had kept it up, this mighty ef­fort, for over 40 years. “I don’t think any­body has worked harder,” my sis­ter said to me once. And not for money ei­ther. From the show that marked her 80th birth­day, a show that sold well, she earned $700 af­ter ex­penses. The gallery owner charged her for the fram­ing and half the cost of the fly­ers, and took half the price of ev­ery paint­ing sold. Three years of work, she said to me.

It was a cold day, and that night the tem­per­a­ture dropped even lower. We got our­selves to bed, my mother in the spare room, me in the ad­join­ing one, my fa­ther across the hall, Stu down­stairs in the study. (Stu would drive the three of us to the air­port the next af­ter­noon, then re­turn to the house and be­gin the job of emp­ty­ing it.) Af­ter mid­night, noises from the kitchen woke me, and I went out to dis­cover my hun­gry mother on the prowl for non-ex­is­tent rhubarb and salmon. Soon my fa­ther joined us, and in our py­ja­mas we had a Hor­licks pic­nic, drink­ing the hot, sooth­ing malted drink and eat­ing cook­ies.

We sat on mis­matched stools at the wide is­land of a coun­ter­top, my fa­ther on the tall wooden stool, me on the metal fold­ing stool, my mother on the seat of her walker. The kitchen was steeped in hard work, fru­gal­ity, pros­per­ity, mem­o­ries. Over the years, as the fam­ily grew in size, each grand­child’s face was added to the rogues’ gallery of snap­shots on ei­ther side of the door lead­ing into the din­ing room, un­til the walls were blan­keted with the past and fu­ture.

Over his Hor­licks my fa­ther con­fessed to an episode he said would fol­low him to the grave: he had failed to pay a park­ing fine in­curred at the hos­pi­tal. “So we have to leave town,” he said, giv­ing us a good laugh.

I said, “To­mor­row Mark will be wait­ing for us at the air­port with open arms.”

My mother said, “I bor­row his arms first.”

We put our mugs be­side the sink and went back to bed and for a while we slept. Be­fore dawn sounds from the kitchen woke me again, and I went out to find my mother on her walker, head­ing to­ward the back door.

“I’m just head­ing out to find that photo of Al,” she said over her shoul­der.

She was in her night­gown, a sweater thrown over her shoul­ders, tiny, stooped, hell-bent.

“Mom, we looked yes­ter­day and the day be­fore, and it’s not there.” I took her hands and kissed and wept and laughed into them. I dis­suaded her, con­vinced that the photo ex­isted in the same de­luded world as the salmon and rhubarb.

All that morn­ing we toiled away. At lunch we sat at the din­ing room ta­ble, the last oc­ca­sion we were ever to do so. Then early in the af­ter­noon, an hour and a half be­fore we were to leave for the air­port, I was star­tled to see on the kitchen counter a lone pho­to­graphic slide, and pa­per-clipped to one cor­ner, a slip of scrap pa­per that said “Young Al Fish­ing.”

Stu, thor­ough and un­dra­matic, had found it in the hand-held slide viewer in the stu­dio, the one mended with Scotch tape, a place I had never thought to look.

Hold­ing it up to the kitchen win­dow, I saw my brother Al with his fa­mous fish­ing pole ex­tended over the wa­ter. There was a slide, af­ter all.

Now — fi­nally heed­ing my mother — I helped her down the stairs to her stu­dio once again, where she darted this way and that on her cane, sort­ing through paint­ings, far more or­ga­nized in her mind than I had given her credit for be­ing.

“Ah, I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said. “I want to fin­ish that. That is a must. Then the three with the aban­doned church — or house — the hill that goes up be­side the tree. It’s go­ing to be called ‘Aban­doned. St. Kilda.’ Now where is the — That’s num­ber one and two of the sawmill, and that’s three, un­fin­ished. And that’s St. Kilda. I’ve got that draw­ing too. I won­der where it is. There it is, there it is. Let’s get it out to the front. Then there’s the other one. No. There it is. That’s the fourth one. And five is our lit­tle guy. Those are the five I want to get fin­ished.”

She stood still. “I don’t know how I’ll do it where I’ll be liv­ing.”

I stood be­side her in the full knowl­edge that she never would. In Ot­tawa they would have a onebed­room suite with space for noth­ing more than a small work­table. I didn’t say any­thing and nei­ther did she. On our left the big win­dows were dot­ted here and there with coloured de­cals to di­vert song­birds away from the glass. Win­ter light poured in and sifted over ev­ery­thing.

Ex­cerpted from All Things Con­soled: A Daugh­ter’s Mem­oir.

Copy­right 2018 by El­iz­a­beth Hay. Pub­lished by Mcclel­land & Stew­art, a divi­sion of Pen­guin Ran­dom House Canada Lim­ited, a Pen­guin Ran­dom House Com­pany. Re­pro­duced by ar­range­ment with the Pub­lisher.

All rights re­served.


Al Hay fish­ing in 1952.

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